What This Appalachian Trail Time Capsule Can Teach Hikers in 2024

Could you imagine hiking the Appalachian Trail 40 or 50 years ago? Having only a guidebook and other hikers to serve as resources? No GPS, apps, or Reddit posts to guide and inform you?

As I’m preparing for my upcoming AT hike, I keep stumbling upon blasts from the Appalachian Trail’s past. Vintage photos from hikers in the 70s have popped up on the r/AppalachianTrail subreddit along with digitized copies of old guidebooks. Sporting the shortest of hiking jorts and with towering aluminum-framed packs standing sturdy above their heads, the hikers from the past look out at me from my screen. Although we will soon walk the same path through a largely unchanging forest, on the surface it seems our experiences will be completely different.

From Guide to the Appalachian Trail in Maine 1975

Curious about the Appalachian Trail that these vintage hikers experienced, I stumbled across a documentary profiling 14 hikers, one in each of the states that the trail snakes through. “Five Million Steps” was published in 1987 and was the first Appalachian Trail documentary. Its creator, Lynne Wheldon, not only profiled current hikers, but included perspectives of past hikers from the 70s and 80s. Her film gets to the heart of the AT experience, not only for hikers of the past, but also for those of the present and future.

After watching the doc, a number of things stood out to me about our experiences as thru-hikers across time. Here are a few of them.


Only 25% of Hikers Complete the Trail

The first hiker profiled was a 30 year old man named Jack who, from the beginning, didn’t appear to be a likely candidate for a successful thru hike. Carrying multiple pairs of clothing in a comically overstuffed and overlarge pack, he experienced foot troubles from day one. Seeing this, I thought it was a great feat that anyone could finish the AT with those gear limitations.

John during the first few days of his hike

Figuring out how to hike the AT, deciding what gear to take, even discovering that the trail even exists seems like it would be so much harder in the 70s and 80s. Today, the internet allows us to share so much more information freely and quickly, with very little barrier to actually acquiring that knowledge. However, this was not the case for the hikers in the documentary. To learn about the trail, hikers had to send off for information and either purchase or rent guidebooks that detailed the route. Now, an aspiring hiker can just browse internet forums, download an app, order their gear, and be on their way.

Despite it being easier than ever to plan a successful AT thru-hike, one statistic remained the same: roughly 25% of people who start complete the trail.

This paradox struck me. How come access to better knowledge, lighter gear, and simpler navigation tools not translate to a higher success rate? What hasn’t changed from the 80s until now?


Constant Across Time

For one, the trail hasn’t changed. Yes, a few miles have been rerouted here and there over the years, but it still traverses through the same challenging terrain. The punishing uphills in Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina are still steep; the rocks in Pennsylvania still stick straight up out of the ground; and the mud in Vermont still sucks hikers’ shoes right off their feet. No matter how prepared you are or how light your gear is, a thru hiker still has to endure the challenges of the trail.

Also, hikers are still human. The biggest barrier to finishing the trail is the mental barrier. One can be in the greatest shape of their life, step on the AT, and quit in less than 100 miles. Or, one can be like Bob Barker, the hiker profiled in Tennessee hiking at 64 with multiple sclerosis, and make it farther than most people thought possible.

Bob Barker hiking with his canes

The human mind hasn’t changed much in the last 40 years and it seems that still, only about 25% can overcome the physical and mental challenge the AT presents. That’s a testament to the universality of this journey. It doesn’t matter who you are or how much you spend on gear or whether you have a strong hiking background or not, you still have a shot at finishing this trail if you have the right mindset.

Among the hikers who did finish, a few things stood out.


Gear Matters

For one, they looked a lot like the hikers of today. Comparing Jack, the hiker we met in Georgia, with Lisa, who we meet in Pennsylvania, we see a stark difference. Jack, with his heavy flannel, over-packed bag, and sorry feet, screams novice, which is exactly what he is at that time. But, Lisa sports her compact pack along with her shorts and tank top. Although today her Nalgene would be swapped for a Smart Water bottle and her leather boots for a pair of Altras, I wouldn’t blink an eye if I saw her walking down the trail this summer.

Lisa roadwalking

Then, as now, gear matters. Those with the lighter base weights are well-represented amongst successful thru hikers. That’s not to say you need to buy the lightest, most expensive gear on the market, no. But it does mean to be prudent and thoughtful about what you bring, know how to make the most of your gear, and don’t pack your fears.


Know Why You Hike

The hikers profiled closer to Katahdin also seemed to have a strong why. They knew why they were on the trail and it wasn’t just to have fun. In fact, when the filmmaker interviewed a group of hikers and asked why they quit before reaching Katahdin, they replied that they were no longer having fun. When things got tough, they wanted to quit. And that’s perfectly fine.

But, know why you want to hike. Lisa, the hiker in Pennsylvania, was motivated by her place as one of the few female hikers on the trail. She had a strong drive to prove that women could be successful thru hikers. John, profiled in New York, sought spiritual clarity and direction. His hike was a test of his faith. These reasons kept them going when the going got tough.

This is an important thing for future hikers to take note of: the trail is not all fun all the time. To make it to the end, you must be willing to “embrace the suck.” Life is not roses and sunshine 100% of the time and neither is the Appalachian Trail. To make it to the end, a reason for finishing that will withstand the rain, mud, cold, snow, blisters, and discomfort makes things much easier.


Time Doesn’t Change the Spirit of the AT

Despite how the times have changed, the spirit of the Appalachian Trail remains the same. At its core, the trail is a personal journey, one full of challenges, growth, and evolution. We come to the trail with expectations of adventure and dreams of Katahdin and we leave with memories of our triumphs, long-lasting friendships, and a new lens through which to see the world. Time does not change that.

If you are yearning to hike the trail, but you can’t do it this year or next year or even in the next 5 years, just remember that the trail will be there. 40 years later, the trail remains true to itself and you will be able to experience it when the time is right for you.

Reflecting on the classes of hikers who have come before for me, I am proud to call myself a thru-hiker and can’t wait to join that 2,000-miler club this year.

If you haven’t watched this documentary yet, I highly recommend it. Link: “Five Million Steps” on YouTube.

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Comments 4

  • David Odell : Mar 24th

    Good post about about the old timers like me. David Odell AT71 PCT72 CDT77

  • Andrew Downs : Mar 29th

    I think the Trail has changed a lot more than folks think. Switchbacks, roadwalks, privies, private lands, trail angles, better maintenance, more volunteers, the list goes on. Digger-class of ’02.

  • AB : Mar 31st


    During the summer of 1963 I was camping in Baxter Park with a friend’s family ( I was in high school).
    One day we hiked up almost to the top of Katadin but on the flats before the actual “peak” were turned around by a thunderstorm. That night we heard that there was a book on the top you could sign so next day the friend and I did it again, signed the book and ran down…the beginning of tearing up my knees…… mostly in the Swiss Alps.

  • Toby Woodard : Apr 9th

    I have owned and loved this film since its release in 1987. I actually met about half the folks featured in it on the A.T. in 1986. The trail has changed a lot more than this article implies. The list is too long and too complex of a topic to attempt in a small post like this. I’m SO grateful I hiked the trail when I did! Son of Billy Goat A.T. ’84-’88/A.T. ’93.


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